Monday, March 28, 2011

bed preparation

Rain was forecast for the past five days, but so far it has remained suspiciously dry.  Thinking that this luck will not last much longer, I spent the morning pushing the tiller through some beds that I had been working by hand.  The days of uninterrupted dryness assisted in turning in the last bits of cover crop with smooth ease.  While not technically perfect, a good raking will be enough to get some bed space ready for my first sowing of beets and radishes.  A fine, even seedbed is important for good germination; soil contact on all sides is one of the best ways to ensure that a seed will start successfully.  Clods, rocks, or decaying green matter in the bed all prevent this from happening.  The goal is to eliminate as many obstacles as possible before planting out.

Which brought me to my next task, the one that I named my garden blog after: picking stones.  Picking stones from the garden is an endless job.  It seems that one can spend hours, seasons, years pulling rocks from the same garden beds.  No matter how thorough you are, the stones persist.  They are like kinks in the hose or slugs in your lettuce.  Some things just don't go away, and the challenge as a grower is to learn to be at peace them.  Luckily, I had helping hands in the form of my friends Serena and Theodore to speed things along.  I was thankful for their assistance, especially after I made the mistake of watering a block of garlic with buckets of watered-down fish emulsion BEFORE we combed through it for field stones.  Consider the lesson learned. 

We spent the end of the day tossing down another layer of straw mulch over bald spots in the mulch that the wind had blown away.  Now I'm actually hoping for some rain to tamp things down.  If any of the forecasts are true, that will be tomorrow.  But if not, I'm sure there will still be some stones waiting for me.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

thank you, sunny day

The earth seems to have celebrated Vern Coffelt's birthday by giving us all a few days of sunshine.  Thank you, Vern, and thank you, springtime.  Almost overnight the daffodils have doubled their blooms, the plum tree above my car is alive with honeybees as the change in seasons makes itself known.  Even when the rain persists, a certain sweetness is present that wasn't there just a week ago.  Each day I am thankful for the small changes.

Today was sunny and dry enough to cultivate outside and chop in some cover crop that hasn't wanted to die back after repeated flipping and tilling.  For more than a moment it was warm enough to merit working outside in a t-shirt!  Glorious!  Meanwhile, preparing for the fact that SOME day beds will actually dry out enough to plant into, I continue filling my greenhouse with flats of lettuce, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and flowers. I moved my tomato starts from my bedroom to the greenhouse earlier this week when I saw cotyledons unfolding from the seed tray.  Now the flats are fully germinated and look beautiful.  While fantasizing about tomatoes sliced with salt my mouth actually started watering... I need to remind myself there is still a long path to travel between seed germination and edible tomatoes.  Still, a girl can dream.

I covered a bed of onions with reemay after discovering that some critter (birds, most likely) had been plucking the plants from the soil and dropping them down next to where they had been planted.  It feels like they are just teasing me by moving but not eating the crop.  As I stretched out the first length of row cover I noticed that it was surprisingly shredded - upon closer inspection I found a mouse nest and telltale tears along the entire piece.  I guess if I was a mouse the soft, woven white fabric would look pretty enticing to build my den with, too.

Since wind and rain are forecast for the next handful of days, I spent the last few minutes of the day laying down in a mulched greenhouse path, wool shirt padding my head as I closed my eyes to the warm sun.  A necessary thing to commit to memory.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

and the sowing begins!

If someone walked into my kitchen after lunch today they would have found me crouched over seeding trays, an open bag of seed-starting mix spilling out onto a tarp covering half the floor, and tomato packets everywhere.  The unreliable (or reliably cold) weather had me move my tomato propagation inside... and into my bedroom.  Yes, for the next week or so I will be sleeping next to flats of Stupice, Early Girl, Dagma's Perfection, and Red Brandywine until the first cotyledons appear.  The optimum soil temperature for tomato seeds to germinate is at least 50 degrees, and preferably higher.  With ambient nighttime temperatures still in the high thirties, it seemed a safer bet to start them in a heated room.  After germination, I will transfer the seedlings (currently in flats of 72 cells) to a mini-cloche inside my greenhouse.  Eventually they will be "potted up" into 4-inch pots - but that is a long ways away.  Right now I am happy enough to have the seeds starting on their journey.

In the greenhouse the first trays of kale, chard, broccoli, and cabbage were laid out a few days ago.  Lettuce is soon to follow.  I am thankful for the donation of a rubber heat mat from my friend Myla which will encourage and speed up seed germination.  Since it only fits two trays at a time, I am rotating seeding flats from covered plastic (a mini-cloche, or the "greenhouse within a greenhouse" idea which just adds an extra few degrees of insulation) to the heat mat and back again.

The spinach I sowed in the greenhouse beds is coming up, and the sight of something growing that is not a grass or weed is quite a welcome one.  I need at least one bed outside to dry out enough to transplant some storage onion starts that have been patiently waiting to go in the ground.  Hopefully the sun forecasted for Thursday and Friday will hold true.  Even just a day or two without rain would be enough.  I'll try not to hold my breath.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

After sunshine, the rain

From my window I can see where the back side of Turtleback Mountain ought to be, but right now it's covered by thick grey sky and wind-whipped trees.  After a few days of hesitant sunshine, the storm that everyone previewed would return has done so with rainy insistence.  I am thankful that I spent the weekend hand-turning cover-cropped beds and then tilling them on the last clear day.  Now at least the fall-planted oats, vetch, field peas, clover, and fava beans will be decomposing and make it much easier to till a final, plantable bed the next time it dries out.

Right now my greenhouse is sown with peas and spinach.  I'm hoping that the cloud cover these stormy days brings and resulting warmer night-time temperatures will encourage the first seeds of the season.  My approach to sowing the first lettuces, broccoli, cabbage, and even tomatoes in seeding flats is somewhat non-traditional.  At this point, the windowsills and greenhouses of many other growers are already stacked full of transplants that were started as early as February.  Last year my experience was that everything I sowed mid-March easily surpassed what I had started at the beginning of the month in terms of speed, health and vigor.  When it's cold like this it can stress young plants, causing them to grow slowly.   Then their roots fill the transplant cell without much top growth.  By waiting just a little longer I will get faster growth, healthier starts.  I'm planning a seeding date on the next sunny day, which right now looks like it will be Friday.  We'll see if my hypothesis holds true this season.

In the meantime I'll drink my tea and look out at the rain.  I remember what Vern Coffelt said on Monday as we stood with our faces to the sun, "In March, I'll be grateful for sun any time we can get it."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spring is here... kind of

After an extended absence this winter, returning to the island and my garden is exciting and overwhelming.  Yesterday I walked through with my 3-year-old friend Olive.  Last year Olive helped me pull garlic, pick flowers, and generally looked adorable any time she stood next to a wheel barrow.  On this wet March day she asked me where the raspberries and strawberries were.  "They're right here, Ollie," I said, pointing to mulched beds of scraggly plants and tied-back canes.  "But where are the BERRIES?!" she insisted.  I explained that the plants are taking this time to pull energy and nutrients from the soil, and that in the summer they would grow new leaves and flowers.  Once the flowers dropped their petals, we would be able to eat the fruit that was left behind.  "Oh," she said, looking down at her yellow rain boots.  As we squished through the muddy field in the grey cold, it was hard to imagine that first sweet summer berry harvest.  I couldn't even imagine the saturated beds drying out enough to prep and plant, or my greenhouse being warm enough to nurture the first starts of the year.

I returned Olive to her mom, and set about working on exercising my imagination.  I started small: with seeds.  There is nothing more encouraging than receiving your first seed order of the season.  Everything is neat and orderly: the clean, hopeful little packets, the visions of bountiful, weed-free beds in my mind.  As I organized and rubber-banded and planned out beginning crop rotations, I knew that I would be ready as soon as the beds decided they were, too.  I thought of Olive, who told her mom when I dropped her off, "Hey momma!  Someday the petals will fall off the flowers and then we can eat strawberries!"  Growing food is an act of hard work, determination and faith.  Olive has the faith part down, so now I will follow her lead.

Today there is wind and hail instead of rain. At least I can stay dry in the greenhouse.